Late in his term, on a crisp fall day with more than a whiff of politics in the air, President Clinton today was in a liberated mood. There were two appearances that never would have landed on his schedule in more cautious times.
He met with the Teamsters union president--the one with the infamous last name--paying no mind to the controversies that have kept presidents away from this group for more than 50 years.
He gave a speech this evening before a gay rights group, something he has been doing more of lately. The cultural warriors who would take aim at such meetings apparently do not trouble this president so much these days. He distanced himself from the compromise "don't ask, don't tell" policy about gays in the military that he embraced in 1993, referring to "that awful battle that I waged and didn't win" to allow homosexuals to serve openly.
The second-term Clinton may have less to lose in courting controversial constituencies, but two people he is trying to help--first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Gore--have plenty to gain if these groups would marshal resources in their behalf in elections next year.
Clinton, after meeting with Teamsters President James P. Hoffa, said politics, including the critical question of labor's endorsement of Gore, came up only peripherally. Clinton said he and Hoffa talked about Franklin D. Roosevelt and his labor secretary, Frances Perkins, about the North American Free Trade Agreement and about golf. Roosevelt was the last president to appear before the Teamsters. As for a Gore endorsement: "Actually, we didn't talk much about that."
Later, Hoffa said the president had not asked him to endorse Gore but that the two had talked about Hillary Clinton's exploratory campaign for a Senate seat in New York, Reuters reported. "We are interested in talking to her about backing her," Hoffa said.
Clinton won rousing receptions at both the Teamsters-backed Labor Research Association and later at the Empire State Pride Agenda dinner. His remarks at both, and at an earlier fund-raiser for Democratic candidates, were replete with favorable references to both Gore and Hillary Clinton.
But in a humorous aside that carried a hint of envy, he told the gay rights dinner: "There's a lot more attention on what they are doing than what I am doing now." He said he spoke to his wife and to Gore today and both inquired about his activities. "It's nice someone, somewhere in America still cared what I was doing."
Clinton lavished praise on unionism at the think tank event honoring the head of the Teamsters, a union that for decades has labored under a reputation of corruption. He said he ran for office in part because "I was so sick and tired of more than a decade of people trying to make the unions the whipping boy of whatever it was wrong with America they wanted to make right."
To the gay group, Clinton appeared to endorse what would be a far-reaching change in immigration policy: allowing the partners of homosexual immigrants to gain legal residence. He said he met a gay couple tonight from Australia and New Zealand who complained that they didn't have the same immigration rights as a married couple. "I don't think that's right; I think that ought to be changed," Clinton said.
As he raced through a busy day, Clinton gave every sign of a president enjoying himself. On the South Lawn of the White House before leaving, he seemed barely able to suppress a smile when the subject turned to Texas Gov. George W. Bush and the criticism the front-runner for the GOP nomination has been taking from conservatives within his own party for criticizing congressional Republicans.
"I think the Republican right is being too hard on Governor Bush," Clinton said, as he jabbed Bush for supporting the GOP positions on tax cuts, gun control and HMO reform, and for supposedly being in favor of "privatizing Social Security."
"I don't know why they're so hard on him," Clinton said gleefully. "But I will say this, I personally appreciated what he said" last week warning Republicans against balancing the budget "on the backs of the poor."
Later, Clinton had a new occasion for chest-puffing. After getting word that the House had passed a White House-supported version of the "Patients' Bill of Rights" regulating health maintenance organizations, Clinton strode into a hotel conference room, with a Sheraton sign rather the presidential seal on the lectern, to proclaim a "major victory for every family."
What the day seemed to highlight was a president less on the defensive than Clinton has been for much of his second term. It also showed a president devoting attention to what comes after his presidency. On the schedule this afternoon was a private meeting with potential backers of his presidential library.
The White House has refused to disclose whom Clinton was meeting with, who has contributed or how much money has been raised for the library. Spokesman Joe Lockhart referred questions to James Kennedy, press secretary for the White House legal counsel, who in turn said he knew of no policy for public disclosure of financial contributions to the library.
The Teamsters and gay rights events were in their own way also about protecting Clinton's legacy. Associates say he regards Gore's election to the presidency, and Hillary Clinton's election to the Senate, as important validations of his tenure.
The Teamsters union, which was the sworn foe of two Clinton heroes--President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy--is playing a pivotal role this year in Democratic presidential politics.